Friday 11 January 2013

A Gordon River Journey: Part 2

River of Legends

We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours. - 12th century theologian, John of Salisbury

In saying “yes” to this sea kayaking trip on the Gordon River, it didn’t occur to me to associate it with events on the river that said exactly the opposite almost thirty years prior. On December 14th 1982 the Gordon River became the focus of national and international media attention.

[A Tasmanian "No Dams" sticker from the early 1980s] 

The Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC), whose plan to dam the Franklin River just below its confluence with the Gordon River had the strong support of the Gray Government, was literally bulldozing aside all objections. So in December 1982, a non-violent protest against the dam began on the Gordon River and its surrounds. It came to be known as the Franklin Blockade.

As we make our way upstream on the third day of our trip, David names some of the river’s landmarks. Only then does it fully dawn on me that we’re travelling past places I have known through story – you could almost say legend – for three decades.

Marble Cliffs, for instance, I recall as a “beauty spot”, much photographed at the time. The real thing surpasses any image. Beautifully pale, steep-sided, impossibly-vegetated, the cliffs plunge decisively into a long, dark, straight stretch of the Gordon. We are rendered speechless, spending more than half an hour slowly pressed up against this geological beauty.

[Reluctantly leaving Marble Cliffs on the Gordon River] 

When we eventually move on, it comes out that David and Judith both have a long association with these wild rivers. David was a Franklin River rafting guide and operator in the 1980s, including during the blockade. Judith had been a blockader.

As we approach Butler Island, vivid blockade stories bubble to the surface. Judith recalls the day a barge carrying a huge bulldozer smashes recklessly through their rubbery flotilla. A banner stretching between the island and the bush-clad river bank is flicked aside like a party streamer. She shivers at the memory, at her feeling of impotence.

Blockade leader Bob Brown spoke later of that episode. 

The bulldozer came up [on the barge]. There were environmentalists in the water, including divers underneath and lots of rubber rafts, but we were peacefully protesting. ... I just want to recapture [the mood]. It was terrifying and it was dreadful and we could see that we were being overrun by the power of the state. We had federal politicians calling for the army to be brought in to remove us from the campsites.

[Butler Island, Gordon River]

That night we camp near Sir John Falls. It's officially called the Lower Gordon Camp, and was an HEC workers' camp in the 80s. There's still a hut there. Ill-furnished and uneasy in its abandonement, it echoes hollowly. A couple of healthy-looking tiger snakes bask in the sun beside the building. We camp nearer the river, beside the sandy beach, beneath some young, well-watered trees.

Directly across river from us is Warners Landing, the place the bulldozer was put ashore. The landing itself is still obvious, large treated pine logs stacked and supported to form an industrial strength jetty. It's the first obvious sign of what took place here 30 years ago. 

[Warners Landing 1983. Photo courtesy Chris Leitch] 

But the rest of this place is the antithesis of industry. We stay for four days, and spend many hours sitting out on the beach. It’s as though we're absorbing peace and greenness through our skin. David points across the river to where the very same bulldozer had shoved a road, scraped a vast clearing, begun its push towards the dam site near the Franklin River. Now only the landing itself can be seen. Otherwise the forest has reclaimed the clearing, refoliated the road, obliterated the work site.

[Warners Landing, December 2012] 

All is still and calm and green, the river mirroring a forest twin, inverted yet just as vividly verdant. Night falls late and slow, birds call their reveilles, moon and stars shine from the river's depths as well as from a clear sky.

After a silent night, Christmas Day dawns quiet and still. We paddle gently upstream through a gorge of ever-varying beauty. The steep sides reach higher now, the forest stacked so impossibly far above us that we have to crane our necks to see the sky. Clouds are darkening and spits of rain begin to fall.

As we round a bend David points out the proposed dam site. We paddle slowly, solemnly, each considering what might have been. It is darkly overcast and a blustery wind briefly pushes at our kayaks. For just a moment I allow myself to admire the skill it would have taken to choose the right site, to design the right dam, to build the complex access and infrastructure in such a forbidding place.

 [Site of the proposed Gordon-below-Franklin Dam]

The moment passes swiftly. Like many of my generation, I had been deeply saddened, scarred even, by the HEC’s drowning of Lake Pedder. That 1970s “triumph of engineering” had cost us an irreplaceable gem. The thought that this incredible place could have gone the same way is a sacrilege I cannot entertain.

Soon we reach the confluence of the Gordon and the Franklin, turning up the latter. Although the river level is moderate, we have to push hard against a strong flow where the river is squeezed between Pyramid Island and the other shore. We fail to get much further, and settle for Christmas lunch on the island.

As if on cue, the sun comes out, shining benignly on this river of legends. And then it’s cags, chocolate bears, and a CWA Christmas cake on the banks of the Franklin River. I did say it would be a different Christmas!

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